Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Caste.jpgChristine Eber, Professor Emerita, Anthropology, New Mexico State University, recommends the book below

I recently read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson in my book club. My friends and I found so much in the book to talk about and after reading it felt compelled to write a letter to the editor of our local newspaper, the Las Cruces Sun News, urging everyone to read it. We talked about other ways to share the book and came up with the idea of putting copies of the paperback (when it comes out) into “little libraries” around our town. 

Based on being the only anthropologist in the club, I’d like to add that until reading this book I didn’t know that for eight years in the 1930s a team composed of two couples – one black and one white – collaborated on a study of racism in rural Mississippi using caste as a central organizing principle. The trail-blazing work of Allison and Elizabeth Davis, the black couple, and Burleigh and Mary Gardner, the white couple, was side-lined by the work of Hortense Powdermaker and John Dollard who spent only months researching the topic, but published their work before the Davises and Gardners were able to publish theirs.

Below is our brief editorial, which the newspaper titled “Looking for a worthwhile book?”

We are five white friends in a book club. We have stood up against racism throughout our lives. But until reading Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, we didn’t fully grasp how the polarization in our nation between whites and non-whites -- laid down in laws and social conventions in the 1600s -- reverberates today in our current struggle with racism and social inequality. 

Isabel Wilkerson shows through meticulous research, historical events, and personal anecdotes how the singular quality of a person’s skin color became the sole marker of their place in American society. No matter how wealthy a Black person might become, their class privilege couldn’t protect them from being a victim of humiliations based on the color of their skin. And no matter how poor a white person might be, at least they could cling to the knowledge that they were not Black.

Before reading Caste we already knew about the horrible anguish of Black parents unable to prevent slave owners from tearing their families apart and brutalizing even their littliest children. But after reading Caste, we were haunted by the evidence that still today Black mothers and fathers are powerless to protect their children from harm, for just being Black. 

As Wilkerson writes, “None of us chose the circumstances of our birth. We had nothing to do with having been born into privilege or under stigma. We have everything to do with what we do with our God-given talents and how we treat others in our species from this day forward.”

We encourage all Americans to read this ground-breaking book. 

Janet Darrow
Christine Eber
Elaine Hampton
Aurelia Holliman
Kim Sorensen

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